The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 09/10/14
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening. I`m Rachel Maddow. It`s
now 9:00 p.m. exactly here on the East Coast.
And this is a special edition of THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW with coverage
of President Obama`s address to the nation on the threat from ISIS, the
Sunni militant group that operates in Iraq and Syria.
The president is expected to appear on the state floor in the White
House just about one minute from now, from what we expect it to be a 15-
minute speech, laying out the administration`s strategy to defeat ISIS in
Iraq and Syria.
I`m joined here in Washington by MSNBC colleagues, Chris Matthews,
Reverend Al Sharpton, Chris Hayes and Andrea Mitchell.
Chris Matthews, quick thought before we get to the president?
CHRIS MATTHEWS, “HARDBALL” HOST: Well, we`re all hoping he doesn`t
pander to the country`s fears right now, but d gives us an honest
assessment of the dangers we face, and an honest assessment of the costs
and really the effectiveness of what we can do to meet those dangers. We
never got that in the previous administration. And the country`s hungry
Tell us what the real danger is at home here in America and what the
danger is over there, and also what can we effectively get done in the
short-term. And don`t overstate how powerful we are, because this is going
to be a very tough fight.
MADDOW: We see from the polling data heading into this discussion
tonight that the American public is alarmed by ISIS, that they see ISIS as
a threat to the extent that the president can speak to that with any
specificity tonight, it may help calm fears rather than augment them.
But we`ll have to see what direction he chooses to take it. What
we`re looking at is a live shot of the podium on the state floor of the
White House. And we`re expecting President Obama right now.
OBAMA: My fellow Americans, tonight I want to speak to you about what
the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and
ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL. As commander-in-
chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people.
Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to
terrorists who threaten our country. We took out Osama Bin Laden and much
of Al Qaida`s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We`ve targeted Al
Qaida`s affiliate in Yemen.
And recently eliminated the top commander of its affiliate in Somalia.
We`ve done so while bringing more than 140,000 American troops home
from Iraq and drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, where our combat
mission will end later this year.
Thanks to our military and counterterrorism professionals, America is
Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We can`t erase every
trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity
to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true
today, and that`s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.
At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and
North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain.
And one of those groups is ISIL, which calls itself the “Islamic
Now let`s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion
condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL`s victims
have been Muslim.
And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly Al Qaeda`s
affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria`s
civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is
recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.
ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no
vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.
In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are
unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill
children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threaten
a religious minority with genocide and in acts of barbarism.
They took the lives of two American journalists – Jim Foley and
So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the
broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities.
If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that
region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected
specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened
America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands
of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in
Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to
return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.
I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I
want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with
strength and resolve. Last month, I ordered our military to take targeted
action against ISIL to stop its advances. Since then, we have conducted
more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq. These strikes have protected
American personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons,
and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory.
These strikes have also helped save the lives of thousands of innocent
men, women and children.
But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive
difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves,
nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.
That`s why I`ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis
forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.
So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following
consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that
America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.
Our objective is clear. We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL
through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy. First, we
will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.
Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond
protecting our own people and humanitarian missions so that we`re hitting
ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.
Moreover, I`ve made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who
threaten our country wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to
take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core
principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe
Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these
terrorists on the ground. In June, I deployed several hundred American
servicemembers to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security
forces. Now that those teams have completed their work and Iraq has formed
a government, we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq.
As I`ve said before, these American forces will not have a combat
mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they
are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence,
We`ll also support Iraq`s efforts to stand up national guard units to
help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL`s control.
Across the border in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance
to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I call on Congress again to give us
additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.
In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that
terrorizes its people, a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it
Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight
to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to
solve Syria`s crisis once and for all.
Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism
capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks.
Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its
funding, improve our intelligence, strengthen our defenses, counter its
warped ideology and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the
Middle East. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security
Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.
Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to
innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization.
This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims, who are at grave risk, as well as
tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. We cannot
allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.
So this is our strategy, and in each of these four parts of our
strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.
Already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq, sending arms and
assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian opposition, sharing
intelligence and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.
Secretary Kerry was in Iraq today meeting with the new government and
supporting their efforts to promote unity, and in the coming days he will
travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this
fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in
Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands. This is
American leadership at its best. We stand with people who fight for their
own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security
and common humanity.
My administration has also secured bipartisan support for this
approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from
ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and
Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort
in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this
Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL. And any time
we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the
servicemen and -women who carry out these missions. But I want the
American people to understand how this effort will be different from the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops
fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged
through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist,
using our air power and our support for partner`s forces on the ground.
This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while
supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully
pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the
approach I outlined earlier this year to use force against anyone who
threatens America`s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever
possible to address broader challenges to international order.
My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow
marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks six years
since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.
Yet despite these shocks, through the pain we`ve felt and the grueling work
required to bounce back, America is better positioned today to seize the
future than any other nation on Earth.
Our technology companies and universities are unmatched. Our
manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is
closer than it`s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our
businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our
history. Despite all the divisions and discord within our democracy,
I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people
every single day. And that makes me more confident than ever about our
A broad American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world.
It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world
against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against
Russian aggression and in support of the Ukrainian people`s right to
determine their own destiny.
It is America: our scientists, our doctors, our know-how that can help
contain and cure the outbreak of ebola. It is America that helped remove
and destroy Syria`s declared chemical weapons so that they can`t pose a
threat to the Syrian people or the world again. And it is America that is
helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against
terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity and tolerance and a more
America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as
Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia,
from the far reaches of Africa, to war-torn capitals in the Middle East, we
stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have
guided our nation since its founding.
Tonight, I ask for your support in carrying that leadership forward.
I do so as a commander in chief who could not be prouder of our men and
women in uniform, pilots who bravely fly in the face of danger above the
Middle East and service members who support our partners on the ground.
When we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant
mountain, here`s what one of them said: “We owe our American friends our
lives. Our children will always remember that there was someone who felt
our struggle and made a long journey to protect innocent people.”
That is the difference we make in the world. And our own safety, our
own security depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend
this nation and uphold the values that we stand for, timeless ideals that
will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been
vanquished from the Earth.
May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of
MADDOW: President Obama speaking from the state floor at the White
House, saying tonight a broad American leadership is the one constant in an
uncertain world. He said, “Our endless blessings bestow and enduring
burden. We welcome our responsibility to lead.”
Addressing the America people, he said, “I ask for your support in
carrying that leadership forward.”
In terms of congressional support, the president said bluntly tonight,
“I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” but he then said he
welcomes congressional support for these actions.
He did not hype the threat of ISIS. He talked about his revulsion for
the group and what`s wrong with them, but he did not hype the threat to the
United States. He said explicitly that they`re not specifically plotting
against us as far as we know, but they have threatened the United States
and our allies.
The president then saying essentially that he would move forward in
four ways: a systematic and expanded campaign of airstrikes, action in
Syria as well as Iraq, he said an additional 475 service members would go
to Iraq to support those measures.
He asked Congress for more money to help Syrian fighters, describing
Syrian opposition as an effective counterweight to ISIL, at least more so
than the regime of Bashar al Assad can be counted on to be. That`s why he
wants support for Syrian fighters and he wants Congress to provide that.
The president also describing continued plan for U.S. humanitarian
assistance to communities directly hurt by ISIS.
MATTHEWS: Yes, he heard all the necessary conditions, but not the
sufficient conditions for defeating ISIS, and I didn`t hear in there how
we`re going to encourage the Arab countries, the Islamic world to go after
ISIS. I didn`t hear that.
I heard airstrikes by the United States. I heard military training
and support for the free Syrian army. I heard vague reference to someone
over there flying with us over Syria right now without saying what country
that was, what ally that was. Nothing really about the building of a
And everyone from Richard Ignatius – David Ignatius and others who
really know this region are saying the only way you defeat a cancer like
this, like ISIS, is within the Islamic world itself. They must find
themselves the strength and the determination to go in and erase this blot
on their culture.
And I didn`t hear in this speech how we`re going to do that or if we
can even imagine being the leaders of such an effort. As again, I`ll say
these are necessary steps. They didn`t sound sufficient.
MATTHEWS: Let`s put that to NBC`s Richard Engel, NBC`s chief foreign
correspondent is in northern Iraq, is in Irbil.
Richard, the president talk that the United States is not being able
to take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. He also said
that this strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while
supporting partners on the front lines is a strategy that we have
successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. Essentially saying he
wants to do to ISIS what the United States has been doing to al Qaeda and
its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
What do you make of that analogy?
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: I think it is
wildly off base, frankly. I think it`s an oversimplification of the
In Yemen, there is a partnered government that doesn`t have the force
to reach some parts in the desert where al Qaeda is hiding out. So, it
relies on the United States to lend a hand, to do some observation missions
And generally, what happens is the U.S. will tell the Yemenis, hey,
there are some terrorists hiding in this particular village or in this
particular oasis, go and find them. And if the Yemeni forces can`t get
there, the U.S. strikes by air.
In Somalia, you have a similar group to al Qaeda, the same mentality
that`s operating in a remote corner of Africa that is generally ignored
except when the U.S. Special Operations Forces see an opportunity and
That`s not at all the situation we`re seeing in Iraq and Syria. Here
we have a large group, tens of thousands of fighters. They control an area
the size of Maryland. They control an area that has 8 million people
living inside of it.
It`s much more akin to regime change than it is to waiting back,
picking targets with allied forces. They are not comparable at all.
MADDOW: Richard, when the president talked about not taking the place
of Arab partners in securing their region, he said American power can make
a decisive difference but we cannot do for Iraqis what they muss do for
Does that strike you as congruent with what he`s describing in terms
of actual kinetic activity toward ISIS? Does that make sense to use
ENGEL: In principle, of course. The U.S. can`t secure Iraq unless it
wants to send back several hundred thousand troops to this country and
start over again and push the reset button, which I don`t think anyone is
talking about right now.
But he`s talking about having the Iraqi army reconstituted and using
that Iraqi army to secure this country. The problem is the Iraqi army over
the last several months has collapsed. It has been reconstituted already
by many Iranian advisers and sometimes regular Iranian ground forces that
have been witnessed on many occasions and these Sunni villages that are now
with ISIS are afraid of the Iraqi army. They don`t want the Iraqi army to
come into their villages.
So, we talk about a partner on the ground that we are going to link up
with to rid Iraq of ISIS. Well, that partner on the ground in many cases
is a reason that people support ISIS in this country.
MADDOW: NBC`s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel joining us
live from Iraq, from Irbil in northern Iraq – Richard, invaluable to have
you here. Thank you so much.
I want to bring in NBC`s chief foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell.
Andrea, broadly, what`s your response to the speech?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well,
first of all, to elaborate on what Richard said, you also have the
Peshmerga forces. You don`t have command and control over an Iraqi army
per se. So, we have to work with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which have
proved to be better fighters. And also, this Iraqi army which Richard
witnessed himself turned and ran and let ISIS take over, huge areas of
territory. And ended up, you know, actually threatening Baghdad at one
point before they started pushing back.
And in Syria, you don`t have the Syrian forces able to create the army
yet. It`s going to take a long time.
I thought that the speech was balanced in that he did not exaggerate,
as you pointed out, the threat to the homeland. He didn`t say there are
specific threats. He didn`t try to hype that. It wasn`t that kind of
MADDOW: We need to lead in the world. It`s not that they`re coming
here and we need to defend the homeland. Right.
MITCHELL: But I think he still has to make a case to Congress and to
the American people, not that Congress is demanding that he makes that
case, but there are individual senators and House members who want to know
what happens the day after. And that`s the question that Reverend Al
raised earlier, that we`ve all been thinking about.
He`s sending 475 more troops in, but we`ve all, as you look back over
decades of history, and we are still haunted, many of us, by Vietnam, you
see groups, 475 now, another 250. And as you get more and more invested in
this, this becomes America`s war.
AL SHARPTON, “POLITICS NATION” HOST: I think that we must first dial
back and say what was the president trying to do tonight?
I think he was trying to give a message to the American people and
ISIS. I think that he`s not going to tell everything.
We are talking about the president that had us all laughing at the
White House Correspondents Dinner while he already had people on their way
to kill bin Laden that very night. So, I did not think he was going to
give us everything that may or may not be happening.
But he did say some things a lot tougher than we`ve heard like we will
– that ISIS – we`ll hunt down terrorists. There will be no safe haven.
He was very tough there.
But he also said something that is smart by separating them from
Islam, saying this is not Islam. And I think that`s the message that he`s
going to have to bring to the Sunnis and to people around the Muslim world
and separate them.
Now, where this goes, we don`t know. We did not hear it tonight. I
will concede that to Chris Matthews, but that does not mean there is a
I also think, though, that none of it will work if we do not have
forces on the ground that`s willing to do it. If there is – if, in fact,
we`re looking at regime change, it cannot be regime change to us. It must
be by those that are there in that world that will take up the rights to do
this and whether they can be trained to prepare to do it is the question
that we do not know.
CHRIS HAYES, “ALL IN` HOST: There`s a kind of attempt to fit this in
with a continuity of the Obama doctrine in this speech, to basically say
this is like what we have been doing in the kind of expanded drone war
special operations global war on terror that I`ve been waging from the
beginning in the moment of that debate where said that we`ll go into
Pakistan, that this is a core principle of my presidency.
The problem is, as Richard Engel pointed out, first, it`s unclear
whether this is a fitting analog, and second of all, it`s hard to point to
Yemen and Somalia as successes. I mean, these are places that are not in
particularly good shape. Yemen is experiencing tremendous unrest, it`s a
tremendously oppressive regime. We all know Somalia remains essentially a
failed state, a mess, al Shabaab –
MADDOW: Although to be fair, I mean, American action in Yemen and
Somalia aren`t nation building efforts and supporting those governments,
writ large. It`s about attacking groups that pose an internationally
HAYES: That`s right. But six years into this, al Qaeda in from this
is by the administration`s own admission to largest threat to the American
people. That`s the place we`ve been doing the most air strikes in Yemen.
It`s unclear whether that has borne strategic fruit in terms of protecting
the American homeland.
And so, if you`re saying we`re going to add another essentially
equilibrium of perpetual conflict to this in Iraq, it`s hardly –
MADDOW: In Iraq and Syria.
HAYES: In Iraq and Syria.
MITCHELL: We should not underestimate the fact that this president
has now said, we`ll take it to Syria, to their safe havens. He didn`t –
he wouldn`t say that a week ago. He`s changed.
SHARPTON: He`s comparing airstrikes with Yemen and Somalia. He was
not comparing the results. Let`s not – he was saying that we can contain
the would-be terrorism toward Americans as we did in Somalia and Yemen. I
don`t think he was comparing the results of where Yemen and Somalia is now.
MADDOW: Let`s bring in Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat from
California. He`s a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He, too,
has been outspoken that Congress ought to debate this matter. Congress
ought to weigh in, take an authorizing vote.
Congressman, thanks very much for being with us tonight. Appreciate
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You bet.
MADDOW: Can I get your overall reaction to what the president laid
out tonight? Did he explain the things that you wanted explained? Is
there more that you need to hear from the president before you think
Congress should take some sort of debate and vote on this matter?
SCHIFF: Well, I wouldn`t say yes to both. I think it was a good
solid speech that laid out why ISIL is a threat to the United States, and
why we have to act at a broad outline how we`re going to take on ISIL.
But I view this as much more an opening statement than a closing
argument. And I think there are going to have to be a succession of
speeches and conversations with the American people about how we`re going
to accomplish this task to fill in what kind of cooperation we`re going to
get from our allies and regional partners.
So, there`s a lot more to be said about, but I think this was a good
opening for the president to lay out his strategy and to invite Americans
into a very important conversation about how we go forward and how we take
on this fight.
MADDOW: Congressman, when the president made the analogy to Yemen and
Somalia and said this is the same type of strategy essentially that we have
pursued successfully for many years in Yemen and Somalia. It struck me
that one of the differences there is that the president didn`t make a big
speech about that to the American people, neither this president nor the
previous one in terms of launching that as an ongoing and public campaign
that he wants political discussion about. He welcomes Congress` support
about, he wants the American people`s support. This is not being done as a
It`s also not being done with either the support or tacit support that
we`ve had some countries from the government in Syria. This president is
talking about doing airstrikes in Syria, a country that`s very troubled and
has its own civil war. It would treat airstrikes by anyone else in the
world as a hostile act.
Do you think that the president is essentially dialing back what our
expectations should be for how big a confrontation this is by making that
analogy? Or is he letting us know that this could actually blossom into a
SCHIFF: Well, I think it`s a couple of things. You are right and
Richard Engel as well that the situation in Yemen and Somalia is very
different than in Iraq and Syria, for the reason that we don`t have a
government like we do in Yemen to cooperate with.
But also for the broader point, that we`re talking about thousands and
thousands of fighters who hold a third of both of those countries who are
the best resource to really terrorist army, very different situation than
in Yemen and Somalia.
But I think the point the president is making is if you look at a
couple of the paradigms of how to take on the challenge of ISIL, we have
the paradigm of fully occupying countries like Afghanistan and previously
Iraq, or you have the paradigm of doing what we can to help through air
support, intelligence, et cetera, but relying on local forces to be the
ground forces, and he`s saying this, we ought to use the approach that
we`re using more in Yemen and Somalia. And with that I agree with him
When you look at the threat that is posed to us by ISIL, yes, there`s
a real threat now and that threat`s going to grow, but that threat does not
yet justify, and I hope it never will, the wholesale occupation of Iraq or
Syria. So I think he`s right to use the approach that he is even if the
examples he gave aren`t completely opposite.
HAYES: Congressman, Chris Hayes, how do you interpret or understand
the phrase “welcome congressional support”?
SCHIFF: Well, I think what the president is saying, hey, if Congress
wants to have a vote on authorization, I would welcome that, I`d love for
them to do that, but I`m not going to come to Congress and say that this is
required because I don`t know what I`m going to get.
So, I think that`s how I interpret it. At the same time, Congress
really needs to step up and do its job. We`re talking about a multi-year
military campaign. And Rachel, you pointed out quite accurately, that even
if we say this is only going to be in the air, one of those pilots goes
down or we have special operators on the ground and they end up in yellow
jumpsuits in the desert and you got to imagine we`ll be sending in the
troops after that.
So, there is a broad risk of escalation here and that`s something that
Americans need to be mindful of.
MADDOW: Congressman Adam Schiff, thank you very much for being with
us tonight. It`s very helpful to have you here. Thank you.
SCHIFF: You bet.
MADDOW: You know, here`s a thought experiment. Let`s say Congress
decides that they are going to vote. They have a big debate, they`re going
to vote on whether or not to authorize this use of force and they vote no.
Would the president – they vote it down. Would the president feel
constrained by that vote to not go ahead with it? He`d then be going ahead
in defiance of Congress.
He`s saying he welcomes it, so it would be nice, but if I don`t get
it, I`ll go ahead. If they told him no, would he feel constrained by that
to stop what he`s planning on doing with or without them?
MATTHEWS: He must think because he didn`t ask for it. He must fear a
rejection and he would have to honor it, like he did with Syria.
MADDOW: Well, it`s Congress` decision whether or not to vote.
MATTHEWS: No, once it happened, it would be on them.
SHARPTON: But if we`re going to play the mind game, then why don`t
they do that? If in fact those that are opposed to the president feel they
have the votes, they should then convene and vote and tell the American
people, we`ve said something needs to be done. We don`t care what the
polls say, we`re voting against this president. It`s for them to convene
and to say, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can call the vote. We should
be asking why don`t they call the vote if they thing the president`s out of
HAYES: I share your belief that Congress should vote. But as a
constitutional matter, as a sort of democratic principle matter, to play
devil`s advocate for a moment, the two AUMFs that are in effect, neither of
which have been repealed, neither of which I can foresee ever being
repealed, have only expanded the concentric circles in which the executive
There is a case to be made that a third one, that perhaps names the
nation of Syria will only produce even more authority and latitude for the
next president to come along after this one. That they will then have
three AUMFs which they can point to, to bomb also in Syria, as that war
drags on into 2020 as I watch my children grow up under a second decade of
perpetual war, that`s the actual concern about what the actual language
that gets approved here does and what it means presidentially for future
MITCHELL: And in Syria, I was talking to senior officials who were
briefing us before the speech and said we couldn`t talk about it until
after the speech about why this doesn`t help Assad. You go after ISIS, the
worst enemy Assad has, the most potent military force which some say Assad
let grow and metastasized knowing that they`d become such a threat and that
they would wipe out the so-called moderate rebels and why doesn`t this help
And the answer from senior officials was that the ISIS forces are
holding Sunni territory in areas of Syria where Assad does not control the
ground. So, it won`t really help Assad –
MADDOW: So, as they get defeated in that territory, it won`t be Assad
that comes in. It will be the other rebels.
MATTHEWS: But Richard Engel said the opposite. He said it would be
the government which would come in.
Can I ask one question? Because I think it`s at the heart of our
discussion tonight. It`s not about Congress versus the president. It`s
about ISIS versus us.
If you`re Baghdadi tonight and you just heard this or stayed up
overnight to watch this thing, got up early to watch, would you be afraid
of the United States at this point? We`ve already said we`re not going to
use ground troops. We`ve said you`re our enemy, which is what they want us
to do. So, you`ve done all the good things they want, which is to engage
in the United States in a big international war, but the United States has
basically tied its own hands saying we`ll count on the Free Syrian Army to
take you guys on. We`re going to train them.
So, airstrikes, all that does is give them, if you will, the street
rep that they wanted to have, the reputation of being the one force in the
world taking on the United States.
MITCHELL: There`s an event taking place in Jeddah on Thursday on
9/11, interestingly enough and it`s a gather of Arab leaders, of regional
leaders, John Kerry, hosted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This is a
newly formed coalition.
I`m not saying it`s going to work and that everyone is going to ante
up and we`ll end up as in Desert Storm where Japan and others paid so much
that we made money on that war rather than spending money. Jim Baker
actually negotiated deals, unbelievably, where people were anteing up all
over the place.
But I am suggesting that with the Saudis involved, that Baghdadi has
to take note, that the Arab League, the Saudis, the UAE, Jordan, not yet
Turkey, but others are putting up some money and some fighter planes.
MADDOW: And some potential force, the way that they brought the world
together is significant. And some of the countries that are coming
together to discuss international action against them are the places
they`ve made all their money, where they`ve had all their support at this
So, I don`t think anybody ever welcomes air strikes. They do have the
worry about the world turning against them. And I do think, actually,
they`re bummed that the U.S. isn`t sending ground troops. That`s the thing
they want more than ever. That`s they say on their propaganda video, send
them here, get them closer to us, so we can kill them and recruit more.
So, them not getting ground troops is a loss for them.
MATTHEWS: Well, all those people meeting in Jeddah, they`re already
declaring war on them. ISIS says we`re going to knock you guys off. So,
the war has already begun from ISIS`s point of view. I still say ISIS is
the hot hand right now in the Arab world and not the king of Saudi Arabia.
MADDOW: As much as this all resonates for us and we think back to
previous negotiations with use of force in Iraq and ground troops and all
the other things, as this resonates for us, how do you think this resonates
to the less than 1 percent of our population that`s spent all of those
tours fighting that very long war in Iraq?
HAYES: Particularly the Special Forces that will get run through yet
MADDOW: We have 2 million Iraq veterans in this country. They`re
less than 1 percent of the population that fought in this war. Tonight`s
speech and this whole debate has a very different kind of personal
resonance for them. And we know they`ve all been watching closely as all
the rest of us.
Joining us now is Paul Rieckhoff, he`s founder and executive director
of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He`s an Iraq combat vet.
Paul, thanks very much for being here. It`s good to have you here.
PAUL RIECKHOFF, IAVA: Good to be here, Rachel. Thanks, guys.
MADDOW: Does this feel like Iraq war debating deja vu? Does it feel
like we`re diving back into the same stuff? Does it feel like we`ve
evolved at all to you in terms of how we debate these things? How well
make these decisions?
RIECKHOFF: It does feel like we`re going down a similar path. But
again, I think there`s a lack of clarity here. You know, we didn`t hear a
lot of specifics tonight that will actually impact the veterans and
I think the biggest news for us is 475 more of our friends and family
are going into combat. And I think that`s an important point to make.
It`s combat. If you`re on the ground in Iraq right now, if it`s your
husband or wife or son or daughter that`s headed over there with those 475
people, it`s combat. If they`re killed in action, it will be just like
combat for them, for their families and for our nation. So, I think that`s
an important point to make.
And it`s also important to understand – we haven`t taken care of the
folks that went to Iraq the first time. We`re coming off a summer of
absolute scandal at the V.A. And today is actually Suicide Prevention
Awareness Day, as we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide.
So, I think we`ve got to talk about the total human cost. If the
president does ask Congress for financial support to fight ISIS, will it
include support for vets? Because it didn`t the last time and we`re still
paying the price.
MADDOW: Paul, one of the things that we did wrong in my opinion as a
nation in the last Iraq war, whatever you feel about that as foreign
policy, is that we went to a war in a way that sent military families out
there on their own. The civilian population was encouraged to ignore the
fact that the wars was going on. Congress was encouraged to not pretend
like it cost anything and otherwise not debate it once it was already
started. And we had this cleaved experience where you had military
families and veterans who had the on the ground experience with it and the
rest of us, it was if nothing in our normal lives changed.
Are there lessons learned about that mistake that we should be putting
into action now so we don`t make that mistake? Again, we got 1,100
Americans already, another 500 going and who knows how many will end up
there eventually. How come we not make that mistake again?
RIECKHOFF: And we`ve still got folks in Afghanistan.
RIECKHOFF: I think the unfortunate reality is our country has never
been so disconnected from war. So, right now a lot of Americans are
changing the channel and going over to a reality TV show and our military
families are waiting for the phone to ring. They want to know if it`s
their loved one that will go over there as part of that unit. They want to
know when their folks are coming home from Afghanistan and when they do
come home, they want to know if they`re going to be taken care of.
So, it`s been 13 years of war. The same folks going over and over
again. It does feel endless. The rest of the country is at the mall and
we`re at war. So, at some point, the country has to address this
disconnect that it`s almost war by remote control. It`s a small group of
people that continue to sacrifice over and over again.
And when I went to Iraq in 2003, I never could have imagined that ten
years later we`d still be fighting for adequate V.A. benefits. Everyone
said they`ll have our back, they said there would be yellow ribbons.
But now, folks are on secret waiting lists. We found from the new
secretary of Veterans Affairs that almost 100 hospitals are being
investigated. So, we`ve got a long way to go before we honestly keep the
compact with the folks we sent before, and we should really keep that in
mind as we consider sending more.
MADDOW: That`s part of the up front costs of doing this, the lifelong
commitment to the people who gets that. It`s part of what we have to
commit to now when they`re going.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of IAVA, Iraq and
Afghanistan Veterans of America – thank you, Paul. It`s great to have you
here. Thank you.
RIECKHOFF: Thanks, Rachel, any time.
MADDOW: Joining us live from Damascus in Syria is NBC News chief
global correspondent Bill Neely.
Mr. Neely, thank you so much for being with us in the dead of night
there. I really appreciate your time tonight.
Bill, on the ground, can you tell us anything about how the
president`s announcement tonight may be greeted both by the Syrian
government but also by the rebels that have been fighting the Assad regime
through all these bloody years?
BILL NEELY, NBC CHIEF GLOBAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think as ever
with this president, Rachel, the words are important. And I heard him say,
I will not hesitate to take action in Syria, but not, I will take action
immediately, or I`m authorizing immediate action.
So, I think the Syrian government will remember this time last year
when the president looked like he was going to bomb the regime only to pull
back and do a deal with the Russians. So, you know, a year is a long time.
And the rebels will be looking not just at his words but at his actions as
Interesting, he called for more help for the rebels but didn`t
announce that he was going to immediately spend whatever, $500 million.
So, the words he uses are important and they`ll be listened to with great
interest here in Damascus where the war against the rebels and the war
against ISIS is very much alive. As I`ve been standing here there have
been several explosions in the outskirts of Damascus behind me. So, the
war here very real, but the president saying Iraq is now, Syria is well
MATTHEWS: Do you have a sense that the United States will have allies
in Syria, serious allies in confronting ISIS?
NEELY: Well, it`s a very good point because, as we remember, the
Syrian national coalition wasn`t much of a coalition and wasn`t very
national. And you do look around now where are these moderate rebels that
President Obama hopes to train and arm? Because most of the Free Syrian
Army have just simply been overrun by ISIS.
The plain fact of the matter is there is no effective ally on the
ground here and there certainly is no friendly government. There`s only
And it was also interesting in the speech that President Obama simply
said we cannot rely on Assad, but he didn`t say he`s got to go, he`s an
evil dictator. All that rhetoric of a year ago has disappeared.
So, I think the central dilemma for the United States and the
coalition remains, how do you weaken ISIS and not strengthen President
Assad? And you know – at the end of the day, what does victory over ISIS
in Syria look like? Does it end up with President Assad also holding the
MADDOW: Bill, let me ask you about a point that Andrew raised earlier
in terms of the way the White House is explaining this, the way the
administration is explaining how they`re going to thread that needle.
Hurting ISIS but not thereby helping Assad, which, of course, is locked in
combat with ISIS.
The way they`re explaining is by saying, listen, we`re going to hit
ISIS in the territory that they`re controlling. The territory that they`re
controlling is not going to be retaken by Assad once they`re gone. Other
rebels will take that. Assad will not be able to capitalize on the harm
that we do to this group simply because of where they are geographically
Does that resonate for you? Does that make sense on the ground there
NEELY: Well, it does make sense in the sense that the Assad forces
have all given up in the east of the country, in Raqqa, for example, the
east of the country, the Raqqa province where ISIS is strongest. You can`t
– it`s true, you can`t see American bombs falling, then the Syrian forces
Having said that, this is a civil war that has had so many twists and
turns, you know, you simply can`t easily predict what might happen. I
mean, it was only a year that we thought Jabhat al Nusra was the main rebel
force here and possibly the main threat eventually to the West, only
quickly to be superseded by ISIS.
So, I think in some respects, there is some wishful thinking going on
here that when the bombs drop, there will be a force of moderate rebels who
will move in and retake and hold the ground. I think that`s exactly what
that is. Whether it`s Assad forces or the rebel forces, it`s wishful
MADDOW: NBC News chief global correspondent Bill Neely, staying up
into the predawn hours in Damascus for us tonight – Bill, thank you so
Andrea, fascinating point there that things change in the middle of a
civil war, things change four years into a civil war. That you can`t
necessarily predict what you`re going to do. You act because of urgency,
not because of the predictability of the results, and you sort of have to
make it up as you go along.
MITCHELL: And that is going to be one of the concerns, one of the
many concerns that the American public has. But I think that the president
probably feels bolstered by this change in public opinion in the last three
week, the change which is a marked change after the release of those ISIS
They probably released them to scare, to terrorize, that is the
essence of terror, and to recruit, but it actually mobilized the American
people more on a war footing, you if will, than at any time prior in the
last few years.
HAYES: There`s something also else quickly about the sort of
component of the fighters in Syria, right? There`s Assad, there`s ISIS,
there`s the Free Syrian Army. There`s also this front, this coalition of
Islamic jihadists, Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic Front, Nusra, who are explicit al
Qaeda affiliates who have been fighting ISIS tooth and nail.
In fact, ISIS, it looks like, just blew up Ahrar al-Sham`s senior
leadership yesterday in the sort of a breathtaking attack. And so, it`s
not necessarily the case that ISIS` loss also means Assad`s gain or the
moderate rebels gain. It could just be the other group of jihadists in
contact with al Zawahiri who are expressly al Qaeda affiliates gaining
ground from is.
SHARPTON: And I think that`s very important.
MADDOW: Right, ta-dah!
SHARPTON: I think that`s very important because even Neely said that
it is not necessarily wrong that Assad would come – his forces would come
back in those areas, that they don`t have strength.
So, clearly, we don`t know, but where we`ve seen a shift in public
opinion and a shift in the president. I don`t want to see under any
president ground troops, but for the president to come on tonight and to
say Assad must go and we`re dealing with ISIS would have been the wrong
approach at this point.
I mean, President Obama`s been accused of many things. Stupid is not
one of them. Tonight was to deal with the threat and how we can, without
giving information that would in many ways tell them which way we`re
coming, expressedly make it firm that we will hunt them down, but he`s not
going to put ground troops. And I think he had to deal with the American
public on the eve of 9/11 dealing with some well-founded fears but at the
same time send a message.
MADDOW: Andrea Mitchell has a very important interview tonight, so
I`m going to hand it over to her for that, Andrea.
MITCHELL: Thank you very much.
Senator John McCain is about to join us, Rachel. And he, as you know,
has been critical. He, Lindsey Graham, other Republicans, but also some
Democrats. We heard already from Senator Dianne Feinstein, who two weeks
ago on “Meet the Press” said that the president has been overly cautious to
me, and just issued a statement saying that she thought he got it right.
John McCain now joins us.
Senator, what is your reaction to the president`s speech? Did he say
enough? Did he go far enough to satisfy you and others who have said he`s
not done enough in the last three years?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, clearly, I don`t think that the
president clearly understands the nature of the threat. He compares ISIS
with Yemen and Somalia. But ISIS is well armed, rich, they are – they
have a huge control of areas as large as the state of Indiana. Obviously,
he doesn`t understand the nature of the threat.
His statement that America is safer – that`s fundamentally false
under any circumstances. And he failed to acknowledge, which he should
have, that our withdrawal from all of our troops from Iraq was a major
contributor to the situation we`re in today. I also would like to see what
we`re going to do as far as support for the Free Syrian Army.
MITCHELL: We have Secretary Kerry is going to be in Saudi Arabia
tomorrow. There is an agreement from the Saudis today that they will
create bases or permit the Free Syrian Army to train and Americans will be
But can we degrade and destroy is with air power alone and without
boots on the ground?
MCCAIN: I don`t believe so. In fact, I think we need to have other
countries be more helpful. But we do have to have – we have 1,000 boots
on the ground now. He`s going to send another 435 boots on the ground.
They`re in a combat situation. To say they`re not is obviously untrue.
But we need more American support, whether it be air controllers,
whether it be trainers, whether it be other intelligence capabilities, the
kind we should have left behind as a residual force when we left three
I still believe that one of the biggest mistakes that`s ever been made
is when the president overruled his entire national security team who
recommended strongly that they arm and train the Free Syrian Army. Now,
it`s going to be a lot tougher.
MITCHELL: Senator, does Congress have to vote on this? Or can the
president do it on his own? Should Congress vote on this?
MCCAIN: Andrea, I think that the Congress should vote on it. And I
do believe that just as President Clinton before Bosnia came to the
Congress, George Herbert Walker Bush before Desert Storm. It`s better to
have the support of the Congress, therefore getting the support of the
So, I don`t know why he is reluctant to do that. I think it would be
helpful to him in the long run.
MITCHELL: But isn`t there reluctance from Congress from both parties
saying basically don`t ask us because we don`t want the responsibility?
Why aren`t Democrats and Republicans coming together and debating and
MCCAIN: We should be, Andrea. To say that we don`t want to make a
decision, we`re literally the security of the United States of America is
involved, because I believe that ISIS – there`s clear evidence that their
goal is to harm America, I think it`s an abrogation of our responsibilities
to our constituents. And I don`t quite understand it.
I`m willing to go out there and debate and vote. That`s what the
Senate is supposed to be all about.
MITCHELL: Thank you very much, Senator John McCain. Thank you for
joining us. Rachel?
MCCAIN: Thank you, Andrea.
MADDOW: With that last answer, I think we can add into our rolling
informal whip count of members of Congress who say there ought to be a
I should also say that House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement
after President Obama`s speech tonight. It`s a long statement. I will not
read the whole thing.
He says, “A speech is not the same thing as a strategy. While the
president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain
about the way in which the president intends to act. The president appears
to view the effort against ISIL as an isolated counterterrorism campaign,
rather than as what it must be, an all-out effort to destroy an enemy that
has declared a holy war against America, and the principles for which we
An all-out effort – I`m not sure what the difference is between an
all-out effort and a counterterrorism campaign. I don`t know why everybody
is shy about saying war, and I don`t know why we think about airstrikes as
not combat. But I feel like we`re through the looking glass right now in
terms of the language that we`re using here.
SHARPTON: Well, I think if Mr. Boehner is serious, then he`s the
speaker of a House, call a vote.
I think John McCain should go to the floor of the Senate tomorrow,
call a vote.
It`s very interesting how McCain even said, yes, I think there should
be a vote. I don`t know why the president doesn`t call it. He`s in the
Senate. They`re the heads of the committees. They have the numbers to
I mean, what are we talking about here? It`s like everyone is dancing
around what they should do. The president laid out his four-point strategy
tonight, whether everyone agrees or not. They are talking about a vote
that they can call.
And again, as I read the president`s speech, he compared – he said
that we have used supporting our partners by supporting our partners and
dealing with the strategy of taking on terrorists who threaten us as we
have done in Yemen and Somalia.
He did not compare the results of Yemen and Somalia. I think that for
McCain and others to act like that is what he was saying is not how I read
or heard the speech.
MADDOW: I think the president did say, we are going to do something
like we have done in Yemen and Somalia –
SHARPTON: But he was very specific on what –
MADDOW: He was specific. But he said, you know, listen, we`re going
to do air strikes and it`s going to last for years. And we`re going to use
to target the terrorist group.
I think the framing ends up being important when he says explicitly,
this is a group that used to be al Qaeda in Iraq. We`re going to use the
same sort of tactics against them that we`ve used against other al Qaeda
And the question is whether that`s appropriate, given that they are
physically a much larger organization, organized – under Baghdadi, the
next two guys used to be high-ranking generals in the Iraqi army under
Saddam. They`re organized more like a conventional military force.
MATTHEWS: I think it was really a good point made about 10 minutes
ago, that this is an early stage of what will grow. If we use airstrikes,
somebody is going to get shot down. There`s going to be engine trouble.
We hate to see it. They`ll grab one of our pilots.
If we use Special Forces units, they will be picked up. We will
probably get very angry again, very angry again. And then, what`s the next
stage? More air strikes?
Then, you`re going to force the Congress` hand, because if they don`t
vote this time, at some point, they`re going to have to damn well. At some
point, it becomes an open war.
MITCHELL: You got four leaders who can call a vote and none of those
four want to do it.
MADDOW: I want to bring in Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He was
a member of the House of Representatives in 2002 when he voted against the
last war in Iraq.
Senator Sanders, thanks very much for joining us tonight. What`s your
reaction to the president`s remarks overall tonight?
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Rachel, let me start you have on a
tangent many others are not taking. There is no question that ISIS is a
dangerous and brutal organization and that they have got to be stopped.
But I tell you what I`m a little worried about. This country today in
terms of a collapsing middle class, more people living in poverty than ever
before in the history of this country, growing income and wealth
inequality, you know what? We have enormous domestic issues. We have
crises right here that cannot be ignored, cannot be pushed aside.
So I hope that while we focus our attention on defeating ISIS, we do
not forget, especially my Republican colleagues do not forget, that tens of
millions of Americans today are struggling to keep their heads above water.
We have more hunger in America than we`ve ever had before.
So, the goal, it seems to me, is to address the crisis in the Middle
East, but not forget the crises facing the American people.
MATTHEWS: Senator Sanders, I agree with your foreign policy so often
and I think – it`s Chris Matthews. I think the big lesson of Vietnam,
which you and I grew up together learning was, you go into a country, try
to change the course of its history and then you come home. You`re leaving
the people behind to run that country.
We`re not going into Syria. And somehow we have this notion we can
change the course of its history. And I just wonder what you think about
that, this – is it arrogance? We`re going to change the course of Syrian
SANDERS: Chris, of course you`re right. You`re not going to change
the course of Syrian history. And I hope that we do not ever forget the
lesson of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq.
You all remember, it was simple. We were going to go in. They were
going to vote democratic. It wouldn`t cost a whole lot of money. Our
people would come home.
It didn`t quite work out that way. And I think what Chris is saying,
there are a heck of a lot of unintended consequences once you get into war.
And here`s the nightmare scenario that we have got to fight against, and
that is – Chris is right, if you have airstrikes, somebody may get shot
down. People will become angry. Maybe we send troops into combat. And
then you have a perpetual war decade after decade in an incredible morass
of the Mideast.
Now, I think the president has been criticized, he wasn`t tough like
Cheney and Bush. Thank God, he understands how complicated this issue is,
that we need the international community. That at the end of the day, if
we defeat ISIS, it will be the people in Iraq and Syria do that with the
support of the United States, and with the support of the international
So, to my mind, this is an enormously complicated issue. I think the
president is right, that we`ve got to help the so-called Syrian moderates.
God knows how many of them that there are. I think air strikes are an
important part. We need the international community.
But let us be very mindful of Vietnam, as Chris just talked about, and
let`s be mindful of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq and the disastrous impact
that had on the region and on our country.
MADDOW: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – thank you so much for
being with us tonight, sir. Really appreciate it.
One of the consequences of course, of the war in Iraq is the creation
of the group called ISIS. There was no ISIS in Iraq before we invaded in
2003. That is the group that eventually became this one that we are now
HAYES: And I think that – one thing that we have to keep in mind
here and the reason in Congress is passing the buck, the basic condition is
that this is a horrible mess. Like it`s over 100,000 people have died in
Syria in the most brutal conditions imaginable, roiling conflict. The
amount of power we have to affect the outcomes in a positive way is smaller
than I think anyone would care to admit.
MADDOW: Closing thought, about 10 seconds.
MATTHEWS: Please not listen to Dick Cheney. He`s the one that
created al Qaeda by taking over the holy land in Saudi Arabia. He`s the
one who de-Baathisize the Iraqi government and created ISIS. And he`s
coming back again with more advice.
SHARPTON: I think it`s a mess, but it`s a mess that Dick Cheney and
others created, that McCain supported. They don`t want to deal with the
mess today that they started. I think the president is right not to put
troops on the ground, I would not support that.
I think they need to be dealt with, but I do not think we need to put
boots on the ground.
MITCHELL: This is not the legacy that this president sought. He is
in a place he did not want to be. He is doing this very reluctantly.
MADDOW: This is a president who is trying to make his international
legacy that the United States works with international partners and that we
do not do stupid stuff. He carried forth those aims in what he said
tonight. What happens because of this strategy will prove, though, whether
or not it`s right.
My thanks to Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton, Chris Hayes, Andrea
Mitchell, all of our guests tonight.
Our coverage of the presidential address continues right now live on
“THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL”.
Good evening, Lawrence.
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